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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Let's Take a Stand Against Sexual Harassment in Schools

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Social-emotional learning
In spring of 2016, a group of students at a Boston-area high school staged a walkout to protest what they characterized as daily misogyny and sexual harassment at their school and incidents of sexual assault among students. They noted that girls were often called "bitch," "whore," and "slut." Boys catcalled and groped girls in the hallways, including standing at drinking fountains to leer at girls as they leaned over to drink (Handy, 2016; Lander, 2017). That same spring, girls from a Jesuit high school in Colorado walked out to protest the school's inaction over online harassment from boys at their school, including rape threats on Twitter and jokes about sexual assault (Hernandez, 2016).
At least in these cases students were actually speaking out. Research by Making Caring Common (a project I lead at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) indicates that large numbers of students remain silent in the face of this kind of harassment. As one 16-year-old girl told us, "One thing that I think all girls go through at some age is the realization that their body, seemingly, is not entirely for themselves anymore … the unfortunate thing is that we all just sort of accept it as a fact of life."
The deep infection of sexual harassment and misogyny in workplaces and communities across this country has erupted into a national conversation—one appallingly overdue. But we can't stop sexual harassment and misogyny in adulthood without addressing its deep roots in gender roles and expectations in childhood. Moreover, rates of sexual harassment and misogyny in middle and high schools are themselves unconscionably high. And the problem is not just girls being harassed by boys; boys are also sexually harassed by girls, and students of varying gender or sexual identities are disproportionately harassed. Yet schools often utterly fail to deal with the problem.

Pervasive—and Harmful

According to a recent national survey by Making Caring Common, a frightening 87 percent of 18- to 25-year-old women report having endured at some point in their past at least one of the following: being catcalled (55 percent); touched without permission by a stranger (41 percent); insulted with sexualized words (like "slut" or "bitch") by a man (47 percent); insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42 percent); having a stranger say something sexual to them (52 percent); and having a stranger say they were "hot" (61 percent). Half of the men in this survey reported that they'd harassed a woman in at least one of these ways in the past. Undoubtedly, some of these incidents happened when the women were in middle school, high school, or college.
We know this problem is pervasive in secondary schools. According to one survey, almost half of U.S. students in grades 7–12 reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous year; 87 percent reported harmful effects—such as absenteeism and poor sleep—from that harassment (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Words like "bitches" and "ho's" are commonplace in school hallways across the country. Many teens still label girls as "good" or "bad," with "good" girls defined as friends or romantic prospects and "bad girls" defined as "sluts" or "ho's." Those labelled "bad girls" are especially fair game for harassment.
Even the terms many boys and young men use to describe consensual sex these days—"I hit that," "I nailed that," "I crushed that"—are unnervingly degrading and violent. As girls and women have made impressive gains in school and work over the last 30 years, it seems that many boys and young men are increasingly bent on diminishing and sexualizing them.
Such misogyny can cause many kinds of harm. It can leave girls and women with lasting fears or shame that get in the way of their success in school, the workplace, and other areas of life, eroding their well-being. It can also corrode men's capacity to have meaningful relationships with both females and males, to be ethical, and to be fully human. Left unchecked, it might easily slide into sexual assault.

Seven Ways to Tackle the Problem

Helping students learn to empathize with people of the other gender and treat them respectfully is certainly a key part of social-emotional learning. So what can educators do? First and most fundamentally, they must make the prevention of misogyny and sexual harassment a priority for schools. That means clearly identifying the nature of the problem, giving both staff and students key tools and strategies for dealing with it, monitoring progress, and committing to real accountability.
This doesn't mean that already strapped schools need to expend significant resources and time. Schools can take many actions that are inexpensive and low-burden for staff. Consider the following seven strategies (some of which are expanded on in Making Caring Common's recent report on this issue, "The Talk").

1. Collect Data on Harassment and Misogyny in Your School

Schools need basic information to guide their work on sexual harassment and misogyny and to hold themselves accountable for reducing these problems. As the saying goes: What gets assessed, gets addressed. Making Caring Common has created a tool that school leaders can use to audit their schools. This audit asks school leaders to consider such questions as, Do school staff intervene when students use sexually degrading language or a phrase like "that's so gay?" When they do intervene, are they effective? Do school staff, as well as coaches and other adults interacting with students, have training in how to talk with students about misogyny and harassment? Does every student have a school adult that he or she is comfortable talking to, whom they could go to if they are harassed?
In working with many schools over three decades, I've seen that most schools don't know the answer to many of these questions. That in itself should be a wake-up call. To find the answers, schools can conduct brief student and staff surveys once or twice a year, then form a committee—made up of students and staff—to review the data, form an action plan, monitor progress, and try new strategies if the problem doesn't get better.

2. Give School Staff Training and Support

All school staff need basic training in how to address common forms of misogyny and sexual harassment. Despite the pervasiveness of these problems in schools, a majority of young people responding to our survey had never had a conversation with a school adult about catcalling or making sexist comments to or about girls.
Unfortunately, many school adults appear to lack the confidence and skills to have these conversations. In numerous classes and workshops, we've posed this scenario to teachers and other adults:
A high school teacher overhears three boys talking in the cafeteria. As a girl walks by their table, one of the boys says that he "hit that" last week. Another boy mentions that he just broke up with his girlfriend, and that he doesn't want to go to a party because he might see her with other guys. "Hit on all her friends," one of his friends advises him. "A couple of them are total sluts."
When I ask participants in classes and workshops how they would handle this situation, many say they would want to say something, but wouldn't know what to say. Others say they would say something, but they express little confidence that their words would be effective. Women, especially, fear they will be "written off." There may be other reasons some educators don't intervene, including the common view that such talk is just "boys being boys."
Training should give school staff members practical tools that they can remember and easily use when confronting misogyny and harassment. A training session might present scenarios reflecting common situations—such as overhearing the boys in the cafeteria or hearing a student saying "that's so gay"—and have staff role-play the situation, trying out different responses. For example, in the cafeteria scenario, a staff member might ask the students questions that would cause any thoughtful human being to stop and ponder, such as "How is making a sexist comment different from making a racist comment?" or "Why is this a way that you and your friends bond?" Making Caring Common has developed brief scenarios and guides to facilitate discussion that are available on our website. Teachers might take it a step further and consider together how they could react to common ways students they intervene with are likely to respond, such as by saying, "We're just joking" or "You don't understand." A teacher might encourage students to think about how these types of jokes can reinforce widespread sexism and sexual degradation in our culture, or how others might interpret such comments as supporting and permitting harassment and degradation.
Of course, even if school staff intervene, offensive comments aren't likely to suddenly stop altogether. Powerful social forces throughout history and across cultures have encouraged males to degrade females and driven students to harass gay, lesbian, and transgender students. But passivity not only condones such comments, it can also diminish young people's respect for us as adults and role models. And even if teens don't acknowledge or act on our words in the moment, they often still register our words and internalize them more as they mature.

3. Go Beyond "Be Respectful" to Define Sexual Harassment and Misogyny

It's critical for schools and parents to go beyond vague platitudes like "be respectful" and seize opportunities in schools—not just in sex ed classes, but also in advisories, appropriate afterschool programs, and written materials—to clearly describe what constitutes sexual harassment and misogyny. Many teens and young people simply don't know the range of behaviors that are harmful.
For example, 62 percent of female respondents to our survey of 18- to 25-year-olds reported that they would feel "offended," "scared," or "angry" in response to being catcalled—but a third of male respondents thought that girls would be "flattered." Many teens also aren't clear on what constitutes sexual assault. According to our research, large numbers of teens have never talked with either parents or teachers about what sexual assault is. High percentages of respondents had never had a conversation in school about the importance of "not pressuring someone to have sex with you" (56 percent), about not having sex after the other person has said "no" (62 percent), or about not having sex with "someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision" (57 percent).
Educators might start by asking students to define these terms, clarifying any misunderstandings, and providing common examples of harassment and misogyny (such as catcalling or commenting on someone's appearance when those comments might be unwanted). Personal accounts, when appropriate, or stories from the news and other sources can help clarify why behaviors that seem innocent to some students can produce lasting pain and confusion. All students should also have time with an informed, nonjudgmental adult, both privately and in groups, to raise any questions and concerns they have related to misogyny and harassment.

4. Talk to Teens About What to Do If They're Harassed

Many teens and young adults don't know what to do if they're harassed or degraded with gender-based slurs, whether it's being called "slut" or "bitch" jokingly by a friend or being harassed by someone they don't know. It's vital to help students develop strategies to protect themselves—and reduce the chances of the offender harming someone else.
For example, in a sex education class or advisory period, teachers might brainstorm with students possible ways they can shift from what they typically would do if they're harassed (such as suffer in silence) to what they should do. For example, would they feel comfortable confronting the person harassing them; confronting the harasser later with a friend along; or talking to a teacher, school counselor, or another respected adult at school? If "it depends," what does it depend on? Students should have chances to role-play different situations to help them explore various contexts and strategies, including what specific words they might use in confronting a perpetrator.

5. Mobilize Student Leaders

Because they understand peer dynamics, are more likely to witness harassing behaviors, and often carry more weight than adults in intervening with peers, students themselves are often in the best position to prevent and stop sexual harassment and misogyny among their peers. Students also commonly know the leverage points that can bring about change, and they are often keenly sensitive to tone. Many young people, for example, will call their friends "bitches" jokingly, a situation that's quite different from someone who's not a friend using the word as a weapon. Although both scenarios can be harmful, in intervening against harassment it's important to sense differences in tone, intent, and relationship.
It's helpful to utilize older students to educate peers and younger students about what misogyny and harassment are, the harm done to victims of harassment and assault (and potential risks to those who intervene), how to report violations and seek support, and strategies for challenging perpetrators. Peer educators might fan out in the cafeteria to talk to students, engage students in health classes or advisories, or present at assemblies. Several programs across the country now use students as peer educators to promote healthy romantic and sexual relationships and interactions.

6. Encourage Boys to Think About the Nature of Honor and Courage—and Promote Empathy

Many boys are attempting to demonstrate bravado when they tout their exploits with girls or degrade them. It's vital for school adults to talk to boys about the real nature of courage and honor. There is, of course, no honor or courage in degrading, belittling, or sexualizing others. Yet there can be honor in standing up to your peers when they label or "slut-shame" girls or harass them, or shun boys or girls they find unattractive. There is also dignity in attending to those who might be vulnerable to harassment and assault and intervening to help protect them.
School adults can and should talk to young people from early ages about the importance of listening to and appreciating their peers of different genders, as a matter of decency and humanity. Teachers can use practices that develop empathy across gender, such as choreographing classes in ways that enable boys and girls to collaborate and promote cross-gender friendships. Teachers might also do an exercise in which boys are asked to simply listen while girls explain what it's like to be female in their school or community; and then girls can listen while boys share what it's like to be male. Such discussions need to be thoughtfully facilitated, of course.

7. Encourage and Expect Upstanding

Schools should expect students to not only refrain from harassment, but also protect each other. Learning to be an "upstander" is a vital part of becoming an ethical, courageous person. Yet upstanding can be risky—perpetrators sometimes turn on upstanders. That's why it's important to brainstorm with teens strategies that protect both them and the victim. Here again, educators might engage students in role-plays in various contexts, exploring what teens would typically do versus what they should and could do.

Few Things Are More Important

There is much else schools can do to prevent or reduce misogyny and sexual harassment. It's vital for schools to provide information to parents, for example, about how to talk to their children about these issues. (See Making Caring Common's website for resources we have developed for parents.)
Schools can also increase students' awareness of degrading images of females that are portrayed in song lyrics, television, and other media. Many young people seem oblivious to these images: Thirty-nine percent of respondents to our survey either agreed with or were neutral on the statement "It's rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television." Startling numbers of teens are also watching internet porn that reinforces all sorts of degrading and misogynistic impulses. Resources that schools can use to take on this difficult, fraught topic are available in the resource guide of our report "The Talk."
Reducing sexual harassment and misogyny in schools won't be easy. But given the pervasive and enduring harm these problems can bring, few things are more important. For far too long—whether we are educators, parents, or other community adults—we have dodged these serious problems. We need to expect more from teens. And we need to expect more from ourselves.
Author's note: For a fuller discussion of how to help young people navigate relationships between the genders—including romantic relationships—see Making Caring Common's report "The Talk."

Handy, N. (2016, June 9). Cambridge students take stand against sexual harassment, demand re-examination of practices. Wicked Local Cambridge. Retrieved from

Hernandez, E. (2016, May 20). Girls walk out of Regis Jesuit High School. The Denver Post. Retrieved from

Hill, C., & Kearl, H. (2011). Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

Lander, J. (2017, January 2). Tackling teen sexual harassment. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from

End Notes

1 In this article, I define "catcalling" as a loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a male to a passing female.

 Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer in education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Making Caring Common project.

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